The bravest of the brave
I lived for years with the drunks, the dregs and the sublime. Everyone to the last soul was being trained to deal with what was said to be the coming conflict.
I was in the Rainbow Ranger Division. It was a unit that could mobilize on call, hidden and concealed in a training command. The four years I spent there was tough. I even learned to scrounge for food from leftovers thrown to rot. It was the period of martial law.
We were young, and being young, we thought we were invincible. Being young, we were impressionable. Being young, virtue sometimes turned to vice.
Only after we were trained and some sent off to war did we realize our purpose. I remember the nephew of a certain general; his surname was Eduardo, tall as a stalk and thin as a reed. He was the first to fall. Dead at 21.
Straight from training camp, he became a casualty in that never-ending struggle for hegemony in Mindanao, a continuation of the Moro-Christian war that Spain waged with their conquerors of several centuries, the Moors, who were related only by religion to the Muslim tribes of Araby.
There was another whose name I have already forgotten, but whose face is still embedded in my mind like calligraphy on paper. He was half-Christian and half-Moro; he too died young, soldiering for the Moro National Liberation Front, the other side.
There were others killed as a result of that internal war whose names I can no longer remember. It has been more than 41 years, and I am now an old man of 60; only their young faces remain forever etched in my memory.
Among us, there was one who stood out — my friend Hilario Estrella. I remember his Ilocano features, dark as the tobacco they cultivate in their land, and his profile as sharp as a blade.
I also recall his advice, which was then resented, but now appreciated — that I should join the mainstream of society in Manila, and not squander my life in the cat-and-mouse game they called the Mindanao war.
After circumstances intervened, I found myself involved in the study of law, and the strenuous pursuit of the law’s muse removed me from the memories of my past life.
After I became a lawyer, I learned that Estrella won the Medal of Valor, the highest award for heroism and gallantry, which is equivalent to the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to US servicemen. Estrella’s deed almost cost him his entire platoon, but by some twist of fate, he survived, barely alive.
After again losing track of his career, I heard from the grapevine that the stresses of combat had a telling and fatal effect on him. One day, he continuously saluted the Philippine flag in his base camp somewhere in Maguindanao, and only the pitied restraint of his soldiers made him stop. Medal and all, he was then honorably discharged from the service.
There are other men like him, broken men with overburdened souls who went to war for reasons that until now they do not understand. And there will be more, permanently maimed and scarred by the forever wars of internecine conflict.
This is my tribute to Hilario “Larry” Estrella. The bravest of the brave. Written before he disappears from human memory.
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Saul Hofileña Jr., 60, is a professor of law and is the author of 10 books, including “Under the Stacks.” He still teaches, writes and gives pre-bar lectures.
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